Tonight in Dashogus we had dinner at a local hotel and french fries were on the menu so I could not help but order some as we have not had, nor even seen, french fries since we left the USA nearly 6 months ago. They were not great, but still a treat. So now I should go back and start at the beginning of the day.
We left the ARZ Hotel at 7:30am to go to the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border hoping to get through the border posts early and meet up with our Turkmenistan guide soon after 9:00am (An accompanying guide is mandatory in Turkmenistan for anyone traveling on a Tourist Visa). But at the entrance to the Uzbek post we found the road blocked by a road crew and heavy equipment. As we later found out the crew was building a drive-thru water bath for vehicles that would disinfect the wheels and tires of vehicles entering or leaving the post. The work crew foreman told me (by pointing at the time on his phone) that the road would be closed until 9:00 am. So for the next 30 minutes Nina and I sat and watched as the team moved sand into the excavation with shovels while a heavy duty excavator sat idle; we guessed that people were cheaper than the diesel fuel the excavator would use. We also wondered when they were going to move the equipment to make room for us, and more importantly the three semi trailers behind us, to pass into the border post. At about 9:20 we got part of our answer when a uniformed officer waved us forward. With the heavy equipment unmoved we inched our way forward and squeezed past into the post and pulled up to the office. Later while we were being attended to we noted that the semi-trailers were not afforded any more consideration and they also had to squeeze past the equipment and avoid the excavation. All very strange.
The Uzbek processing took quite a while as at the time we were allowed to enter the post the staff were not really ready for the days activity. But evenually all the paper work was done and the vehicle inspection got underway. Like our entry to Uzbekistan the inspection was extensive with the contents of all external compartments being examined and almost all internal cabinet being inspected. But eventually that was done, and at about 10:30 we said thankyou-spaceba-rakmat all around then drove the 100 meters to the Turkmen entry station.
At the Turkmenistan entrance gate we waited a little while before being waved into the compound with its nice new white and green buildings and were immediately instructed to take our paper work into the main building. There we were surprised but thankful to meet our guide and discover that he spoke very good English.
The first step was to get our visas. This cost us US$132 and was a straight forward process as all the approvals had been done in advance and this was only the formality of putting the visa stamp in our passport. Interestingly the Turkmenistan immigration office noticed on his computer system that we had visisted Turkmenistan previously in 2008. We were surprised and impressed by this. We had obtained new passports since that visit and the passport had different numbers and we were using a different residential address; but they still recognized us. So with visas in hand we started the processing of the truck.
This was not particularly difficult but would have been totally bewildering without the guide to explain what was going on. To bring a vehicle temporarily into Turkmenistan one has to pay an entrance fee, another fee to compensate for the fact that fuel is very cheap in Turkmenistan, and a fee for third party (liability) insurance. The entrance fee is a fixed amount. The Insurance fee is based on the number of days the vehicle will remain in Turkmenistan.
The fuel fee was calculated using the nature of the vehicle. For us they determined we were a truck between 10 and 20 tons. We tried to get them to agree it was a bus but they would not buy that argument. Other North American travelers please note in Turkmenistan and all other central Asian Countries there is no such category as motorhome or RV. The vehicle category determines the fee per kilometer, in our case US$0.13/km. Finally the route one is going to travel is identified and the length of the route determined from a book of official distances. Our route was a little over 680 km so our fuel fee was approximately US$98. With all the other bits and pieces the total was US$252. With that determined and paid we moved on to the vehicle inspection.
Once in the inspection area an entire team of officers arrived to seach our truck, some officers outside with me opening all the external storage compartments and Nina inside showing and explaining the nature and purpose of all the stuff we had inside. Along the way our guide explained that a little time back a French family passed through a Turkmenistan border post and were discovered to be carrying two hand guns and ammunition that they had not declared. The French family spent a week in a Turkmen jail before the local French Ambassador could get them released, and two customs officers were fired for not finding the weapons earlier. Hence the officers were now being very diligent. Since we had no guns nor drugs the search eventually finished without probems and we exited the post and were on our way in Turkmenistan at 12:30.
We followed our guide (in his own vehicle) to the nearby town of Konye-Urgench (which means Old Urgench) for a tour of some of the local ruins. At one point in time Urgench (as the town was then known) was a major center along the silk road and the capital of a major empire in the region and some argue the center of the Muslim world. But the city was destroyed by the Monguls under Genghis Khan. After the passing of the Monguls the city was rebuilt and then destroyed again by Tamerlane (who did not want Urgench to compete with Samarkand). Then in the 1600s the river Amu-Darya changed its course and the cty was abondoned with the people moving to the city now called Urgench in Uzbekistan. The modern Konye-Urgench was revived when a canal was built in the 19th century that returned water to the region.
There are only a few historical buildings or relics remaining in Konye-Urgench, the Gutlug-Timur minaret the tallest in Central Asia, a few mausoleums that have distinctive conical domes rather than the more common rounded domes found in other Central Asian cities and the remains of the city Citadel where the inhabitants made there last stand against the Monguls.
During our visit to the sites there were many locals also visiting, particularly brightly and beautifuly dressed women. The local visitors were mostly enacting two rituals intended to aid fertility or more genrally provide good luck for some venture. The first ritual involved the women walking around and under a stand of flags. The second ritual started at the top of hill that was the remains of the old city citadel. Young women and men would put on an old coat and then lay on the ground and allow themselves to roll down the dusty side of the hill to the foot of the citadel.
After our tour we again hit the road following our guide this time towards the town of Dashogus, the capital of the Dashogus province, another border town, the town where the guide lives and where we were going to spend the night. The guide had arranged for us to park the truck at one of the local hotels (the UZBOY), have dinner and breakfast in the hotel and generally use their facilities.
Driving around Dashogus the differences between Turkmenistan and Uzbekstan are striking. Turmenistan with its small population and vast oil wealth seems prosperous compared to the Uzbeks. Diesel fuel is USD0.20 per liter where as in UZ it is anywhere between USD1.0 and USD1.50. There are many new marble faced buildings, the city has lots of newly made or refurbished roads and right now the city is being given a facelift for their independence day celebrations in late October. What a difference money makes.